Aalto University Archives

Yki Nummi archive

The Yki Nummi archive is an extensive private archive collection held in the Aalto University Archives. Yki Nummi was one of the most influential post-war designers, whose groundbreaking work elevated Finnish design to its international reputation. Nummi is known above all else for his light fixtures, but his artistic merits also include the designing of other home utility goods, book illustrations and acting as a color and light expert.
Yki Nummi Ornon piirustuskonttorissa Helsingissä
Yki Nummi at Orno draughting offices in Helsinki, Stockmann department store. Kerava Museum, Thorn-Orno collection 1961–1962. Finna.fi.

The archive of Yki Nummi consist of biography and correspondence, as well as activity documents regarding colour and coloring, lightning and light fixtures, plastic items, and book illustrations. In addition, the collection includes lectures and presentations, on form and interior design, sketches, study-time works, wallpaper designs and magazine articles. The scope of the collection is 13 units. Some of the light fixture sketches and book illustration covers are available in digital form.

Artist Yki Nummi

Yrjö Kalevi Yrjönpoika Nummi was born in 31.10.1925 at the region of Hunan in China to a Finnish missionary family. Better known nickname” Yki” was adopted early on, by a need to distinguish two Yrjö’s – father and son – from each other. The parents were hoping that their first born would be a girl and the name had been thought accordingly. In a playful letter from a perspective of Yki the father writers: “Just as a joke had father always when someone mentioned the possibility of a boy, said that then it’s without question “Yrjö Yrjönpoika,” (Yrjö’s son). And then when I after all was a boy, father mused that what is decided is decided.” The family moved to Finland early on and Yki never mastered the Chinese language. However, the influence of the East was later to be seen in the artists own décor and partly in his work. The first inspiration for the artistic lifestyle Yki received from his childhood home. The mother Ida was a skillful pianist and the father Yrjö a keen drawer. Later born brothers – Lassi and Seppo – grew up to be respected artists in their chosen fields – Lassi in literature and Seppo in composition art.

Already at birth had Yki Nummi heard the turmoil of war in China, where the imperial regime had met its end in turn creating a power vacuum filled with competing forces. The next time the noises of battle reached his ears was in continuation war. In a letter to his mom dated 29.04.1944 Yki writes: “All is well. There was newly a small alarm – some russki pilot wants to get killed. Be well.” In the card is a drawing of a spruce filled landscape.

Yki Nummen lähettämä postikortti
A postacrd sent by Yki Nummi to his mother. Yki Nummi private archive, Aalto University Archives
Lokki valaisimet kahdessa koossa. Modern art -valaisin
Lokki - "Seagull" light fixtures in two sizes. Modern art- light fixture. Kerava Museum. The collection of Kalevi Hujanen. Photographer: Hujanen, Kalevi 1980-1981. Finna.fi

Entering design profession by accident

After military service Yki headed to study mathematics and physics but had a change of heart and instead ended, via the discipline of art history and drawing facility of Helsinki University, to University of Art and design to take up a degree in decorative painting. After graduation he was instantly hired as a lighting designer for the factory of Stockmann-Orno. In an interview in 1955 Nummi states that he ended up in the designing field by an error:

“As a matter of fact it happened as an error. I was just about to Finnish my decorative painting studies at Ateneum with an intend to become a painter. But then the architect Arttu Brummer came and took me to the Stockmann department store and that’s the road I’ve happily stayed on.”

Employed by Orno, Yki Nummi operated from 1950 to 1975, during which time he designed, among other things, the iconic Modern Art and Seagull -light fixtures. At the same time working at Orno were other notable designers of the time, such as Lisa Johansson-Pape as well as Svea Winkler.

From a rosy morning until a deep purple evening, colour guides life.

Yki Nummi

For Yki Nummi, colours were not simply colours for they had a holistic sense on life. “From a rosy morning until a deep purple evening, colour guides life. It has an effect on appetite, health, mood and moral. It fascinates, it’s repulsive, it attracts to buy, it scares away. It bleeds into everything, it’s everywhere, and it’s nothing, absolutely nothing, you can do to avoid its frantic embrace. Therefore, you’d better make peace with it and use it for your own purposes."

Japaninkielinen pohjoismaisen taideteollisuuden näyttelyluettelo
A Japanese brochure for a Nordic industrial art exhibition. Yki Nummi private archive, Aalto University Archives. aaltoarkisto.finna.fi

Creating the image of Finland

From early on the design of Yki Nummi garnered international attention. At the Milano Triennials in 1954 and 1957, his work was awarded by gold Medals. Especially in Japan Finnish design rose to a high esteem. The artist himself linked the success of Finnish design in some degree to cultural factors. According to him the honesty peculiar to Finns transmitted into the simplicity of the design. This honesty was something that Yki Nummi himself lived by. During one of his speeches in Osaka, Japan, the artist directly stated that he is unfortunately unable to answer to the question presented to him in advance, for as an honest man he must confess that he knows nothing about the said subject.

Yki Nummen valaisimia
Light fixtures by Nummi showcased in the Nordic industrial art exhibition. Yki Nummi private archive, Aalto University Archives. aaltoarkisto.finna.fi
Ornon muotoilijoiden työhuone
Overview of Orno designers’ study in Helsinki, in the premises of Stockmann. Yki Nummi sits at his desk. At the back, in the right, sits Lisa Johansson-Pape. Kerava Museum. Thorn-Orno collection. 1961. Finna.fi

Rest of Yki Nummi's life was colored by an illness, which forced him to withdraw from work under the age of sixty and cost him his life eleven years later. However, he never abandoned art and during his retirement continued for example, to illustrate books. Nummi's influence to Finnish design is indisputable but his legacy to cultural history is perhaps even larger. Yki Nummi promoted the spread of the ideas of modernism both in Finland and in the world. With his international prominence he elevated the national self esteem of a country recovering from war. The artist's design language has retained its timelessness, and, for example, the Seagull lamp is still being manufactured.

Text: Laura Kalliokuusi

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